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The Poet’s Challenge – March, 2009 - Jessica AC Snyder
by Russell Bittner

Ripe for March’s “Poet’s Challenge” is Jessica AC Snyder.  Unlike Jamie Zerndt (whom I interviewed in February), I met Jessica only a relatively short while ago – but at the same online workshop (  Although we’ve also never met face to face, I had an almost immediate gut feeling that Jessica’s poetry was quite extraordinary.

Jessica has never been published.  Does that matter?  In my opinion, no.  While certainly about talent, publication is more about research, persistence, patience.  Publication is about finding the right Website or journal for you – and that takes time and effort.

For instance, I’ve never managed to get one of my poems published either in Poetry or in The New Yorker – although I’ve submitted on any number of occasions to both.  Moreover, I read both on a regular basis, so I have a pretty good idea of what the two publications accept.  And so, that leaves one of two possibilities:  (1) what they accept is recognizable names – which mine is not – or (2) my stuff is crap (or at least not up to the standard of either Poetry or The New Yorker).

Poetry (out of Chicago) is a literary magazine for “professional” poets.  The New Yorker (out of Gotham City) is a general interest magazine that publishes a couple of poems every week.  Read those poems at your own risk.  They’re the first thing I turn to when I get my new issue.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I’m disappointed, disillusioned, discombobulated.  Once in a blue moon, I’m thrilled.

De gustibus non est disputandum (as the old Romans used to say).  “There’s no accounting for taste.”  And with that said, let’s move back to our March hare.

Jessica is an American scientist, teacher, poet, and oenophile.  She holds a B.S. in Chemistry, which hasn't stopped her from successfully teaching Language Arts for a living or studying creative writing in her spare time. In fact, being married to a Marine with a knack for getting stationed anywhere she can’t be a chemist, she has found that literature may well be her only laboratory. Having just begun the process of submitting her poetry this past month, she has no publishing credits to boast of as yet. She’s hopeful that the preceding sentence will soon become null and void.

RRB:Jessica, I don’t know too many scientists who possess a poetic turn of mind.  Hard science (and chemistry, in my opinion, would certainly qualify) relies on dominance of one cerebral hemisphere; poetry on the other.  Maybe you have both equally weighted.  Or maybe your Marine-husband’s predilection for staying on the move has forced you to become hemispherically nimble. Any thoughts on this, or am I just talking rubbish?

JACS:As you know, you sly punster, we were just sent across the globe to Japan, so I’d say being “hemispherically nimble” has definitely been added to my list of necessary traits.

But, to respond to your question, I know plenty of scientists who love literature, and there have always been a few of us brave enough to write it. Having a fruitful continent in one hemisphere doesn’t mean there aren’t productive countries in the other, if you’ll pardon the metaphor. In many cases, one hemisphere can feed the production efforts of the other.

Personally, I don’t understand why studying the astoundingly complex nature of the universe or the human psyche, or both, isn’t a prerequisite for expounding upon those natures. Or, to put it another way, not everybody must study literature exclusively if they want to write it. In fact, I wish more people would study something outside of the standard MFA courses. We’d have fewer poems expounding upon the qualities of the publish-or-die poets’ toe jam and belly button lint, and more poems expanding the minds of the truly inspired poets’ readers.

Soap box aside, I’ve always had the two halves of my brain “duking it out” for dominance. I joke sometimes that they are in such a constant state of battle for dominance, I shouldn’t be surprised that I’ve had a few seizures. Instead, I should be surprised that the two halves of my head aren’t cursing and clawing at each other more often. 

Speaking of brains in turmoil, I just finished this poem tonight. 

RRB:“Soap box” (or bully pulpit) aside – not to mention mixed metaphors – this is a usay “brain on boil”?)   I know that you suffer migraines on a regular basis – and that the microclimate you now live in only exacerbates the affliction.  Are you sacrificing your health and happiness to your art, or do you just have a yen for restless, fancy-footed Marines?

JACS:Moving from a desert climate to an island in the Pacific is never going to be easy for anyone with migraines. Japan’s climactic shifts have given me too many days when I wish decapitation weren’t lethal.  However, I suffered migraines in the U. S. as well. So, I don’t view being here as sacrificing my health and happiness. In fact, being a military brat born in Germany, I was eager to get to a foreign duty station. Now I have my wish.

If I’ve sacrificed anything to my husband’s military career, it’s my dream of ever being in a laboratory again. I’ll admit I was heartbroken for a while, knowing we would likely never be stationed anywhere with a job market for chemists (or, at least, for gaijin chemists).  Discovering a passion and talent for teaching – not to mention having time to really focus on my poetry – has made that sacrifice tenable, however.  Just for fun:

RRB:Talk about mixing metaphors!  Now, tell me something, Jessica.  I know all about Thanatos and Eros and the kinky little relationship that resides between them  deep within the dungeons of our cerebral cortices.  But chemistry and sex?  That’s a new one on me – except for the obvious fact that you can’t have the latter without the former.  (Sorry.  ‘Couldn’t resist.)

Have you got another little ditty somewhere down in your dusty bag – or hiding inside your lab coat?  Inquiring minds would like to peek.

JACS:I suppose I could shake one out for you.  How about this bit, written when I couldn’t get out of a southern drawl:

RRB:I’m speechless, Jessica.  Speechless.  And so, with that – and your permission – I think we should call it a wrap.

JACS:A wrap ‘n’ roll?

RRB:Q. E. D.

Partial Seizure Paranoia

I am not safe in my own mind—
traitors hide inside my skull,
loading weapons, aiming sights.
When reaching in to buy a pint

of chocolate in the ice cream aisle,
my gooseflesh could arise tonight
before I feel the cold, just like
last time, and I might see the scene

that different way—a reel-to-reel
projected on a TV screen.
The ozone smell could turn my yen
for Häagen-Dazs into a dire

(and far less fattening) desire
to simply have my brain be right—
to have no neural shooting match
hinge on cold, glass doors tonight.
Mementos of a Chemist in Exile

Oh, Erlenmeyer flask, you are to me
the crimson bloom pressed reverentially
between two poems of veiled love to dry,
then secreted from out your secret place
and pressed against the hot parts of my face
when I cannot restrain the stifled sigh
“If only, oh if only, Chemistry…”

And, laboratory coat, my speckled chart
of past experiments, your palette’s art
must hang within my hidden gallery.
When naked moments come, the silk and lace
are pulled aside to let my fingers trace
the spots of stains that mapped discovery
and mark the atlas to this chemist’s heart.  

Creole Confectionary

I do declare! I woke all Southern Belle
this mornin'—cheeks and neck a scarlet wash
rememberin' the reason for the flush
in all them southern parts of mine.  Aw, hell!

I don't think Daddy'd like Emanuel—
the pool boy Mama thinks I only use
to make that snippet next door all chartreuse
with envy.  (She forgets that caramel

was always my undoing.)  For a spell,
that's all he was—the sticky, salty sweet
I wanted when I'd cleared my plate of meat—
until that day he said, "Mademoiselle,
I do believe your chocolate may be
the only one I want surrounding me."
Dancing After Karaoke

A dancer kept trying to recruit
me, of all people, saying You
have got the moves, girl.

Thinking her the ingénue, I’d
tried to coach her non-swaying hips.
Her unswaying reply: I

know. grin glow shimmy.
I know. jiggle slow roll.
She knew.

When the DJ spun salsa, I
spun her, and caught the quick
cha-cha she snuck between

beats. While feet worked
their fancies, I wondered that she
dances for money,

for men. Then I saw her
eyes dancing rumbas down me
and thought no

wonder. She never really danced
for men or money. grin glow shimmy.
jiggle sweat slow roll she